UT has tracked student deaths by suicide for years, but a January investigation by the Associated Press found that about half of U.S. public colleges do not consistently track student suicide deaths.
After requesting student suicide statistics from 100 of the largest U.S. public colleges, AP identified differing tracking practices, even among universities in the same state.
Along with UT-Austin, seven public universities in Texas currently keep statistics on student suicide deaths, according to AP’s list. UT-San Antonio and Texas A&M were also listed as having inconsistent data, and UT-Arlington only provided limited data about deaths by suicide among its students.
Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said during his time at UT, he has always looked at student deaths by suicide in order to identify and improve prevention efforts. But Brownson said universities may not record student suicide deaths because they’re not required to and it can be difficult to track. The UT System does not require its institutions to record student deaths, Brownson said.
“There is no federal mandate, (and) most states do not have a legislative mandate to track these,” Brownson said. “The reality is it’s hard to know the cause of death(s). Sometimes suicides appear to be accidents. We do the best to learn about any student death.”
UT’s rate of student deaths by suicide has remained on par with the national average of seven deaths per 100,000 people during the last decade, Brownson said. Since suicide deaths are still rare, Brownson said analyzing smaller changes in the number of suicide deaths by year can skew statistics and make suicide deaths appear more frequent.
“I think that’s why universities get nervous about even releasing data,” Brownson said.
At UT, Student Emergency Services within the Office of the Dean of Students records all student deaths. Sara Kennedy, spokeswoman for the Office of the Dean of Students, said the University does not actively try to identify suicide deaths but records student suicide deaths and hospitalizations reported by family members or police.
“We record student deaths because that helps us tailor our support for the UT community,” Kennedy said.
Brownson studies individual suicide deaths for the CMHC to help improve University prevention efforts.
“When the University has a death by suicide, I always want to know how that happened (and) are there are things that we can do to prevent from happening to other students,” Brownson said.
The UT System Board of Regents used $1.1 million to create mental crisis hotlines at UT institutions in 2014. Brownson said the impact of UT’s hotline is evident in the 1,549 calls it received in the 2016-2017 academic year, of which 28 percent were urgent and emergency calls that could have resulted in a suicide death.
The UT System also allocated $1.4 million for Bystander Intervention Initiatives such as UT’s BeVocal hotline to encourage students to intervene if they notice suicidal thoughts in a peer.
Social work professor Susan De Luca, a social work assistant professor, said suicide deaths among college students remain lower than for U.S. adults, but that universities could screen for suicidal thoughts to help students at risk.
“We often tell adolescents these are the best years of their life,” De Luca said. “Not all college students are having fun.”